Schizophrenia has long been blamed on bad genes or even bad parents. Wrong, says a growing group of psychiatrists. The real culprit, they claim, is a virus that lives entwined in every person’s DNA.
Schizophrenia is usually diagnosed between the ages of 15 and 25, but
the person who becomes schizophrenic is sometimes recalled to have been
different as a child or a toddler–more forgetful or shy or clumsy.
Studies of family videos confirm this. Even more puzzling is the
so-called birth-month effect:
People born in winter or early spring are more likely than others to
become schizophrenic later in life. It is a small increase, just 5 to 8
percent, but it is remarkably consistent, showing up in 250 studies.
That same pattern is seen in people with bipolar disorder or multiple
“The birth-month effect is one of the most clearly established facts about schizophrenia,” says Fuller Torrey,
director of the Stanley Medical Research Institute in Chevy Chase,
Maryland. “It’s difficult to explain by genes, and it’s certainly
difficult to explain by bad mothers.”
The facts of schizophrenia are so peculiar, in fact, that they have
led Torrey and a growing number of other scientists to abandon the
traditional explanations of the disease and embrace a startling
alternative. Schizophrenia, they say, does not begin as a psychological
disease. Schizophrenia begins with an infection.
The idea has sparked skepticism, but after decades of hunting, Torrey
and his colleagues think they have finally found the infectious agent.
You might call it an insanity virus. If Torrey is right, the culprit
that triggers a lifetime of hallucinations–that tore apart the lives of
writer Jack Kerouac, mathematician John Nash, and millions of others–is a
virus that all of us carry in our bodies. “Some people laugh about the
infection hypothesis,” says Urs Meyer,
a neuroimmunologist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in
Zurich. “But the impact that it has on researchers is much, much, much
more than it was five years ago. And my prediction would be that it will
gain even more impact in the future.”